Pro Audio Files

A Brief History of Shure Microphones

Hi, this is Justin from Sonic Scoop. Thanks to B&H, we are here in the Shure headquarters in Niles, Illinois. He’s got a great tour of the Shure headquarters from the company historian, Michael Pettersen. Since this is one of the biggest and probably best known pro audio brands around, I just wanted to dive in a little deeper and see if we can get a sense for the history of this company, and kind of the overall design philosophy.

So Michael, thanks for joining us. Can you take us back to the beginning and kind of give us a sense of how Shure got started?

Michael: Absolutely. So let’s go back to 1923. Mister Shure graduates from the University of Chicago with a degree in of all things, geography, and guess what? He can’t get a job. So he tries for a couple of years, and he comes to his father with the idea, he says, you know, “Dad, I’m really interested in radio and building your own radio parts, and maybe I could start a catalog company?”

So his father loaned him money, and May 1925, he started the Shure radio parts company. Up until 1929, it was just distributing everything you needed to build your own radio. There was a company in Berwyn, Illinois, which is just outside of Chicago called Ellis Electrical Laboratories, and they were making microphones.

So he contacts Mister Ellis, and he says, “Mister Ellis, how many microphones did you sell last year?” Mister Ellis says, “Well, I sold ten.” Mister Shure says, “Well, I’ll tell you what, if you let me be your exclusive distributer, I’ll buy 100 from you every year.”

So we got into the microphone business not as a manufacturer, but as a distributer. A couple of years, it goes well, and 1932, Mister Shure has some ideas, and he says, “You know, I think we can make these ourselves.” So 1932, we started making our own microphones. That’s how we get into the manufacturing business.

Our first big hit was 1939, which was the Unidyne microphone. The Elvis microphone. That’s what put the company on the map.

Justin: So this was 1939 it was initially designed. What were some of the next breakthroughs for Shure?

Michael: Well, it was really a change in world events. Of course, late 1941, the United States entered into World War II, and then all of the sudden, Shure finds itself on the front line. By early 1942, we had gone to seven days a week, three shifts every day producing military microphones and ear phones, and all of the sudden now, we had to start building things to military specifications, which is very different than building them for consumers.

So when the war ends, and now we have to retool. Mister Shure made a really strategic decision. He found that while building products to military specs, the scrap rate went down, cost more, but scrap rate went down, the return rate went down, and the actual faith in the product went up. So his really big insight was, “Let’s make consumer products using those same military specifications.”

Justin: So, can you tell us about the beginning of that line, and how that started to come about?

Michael: The SM line? Right. So we have to go up to 1959, first of all, when we brought out the Unidyne III, and the Unidyne III was a 545, which was an end fire microphone where you talked into the end of it, rather than to the side of it. But we had a product manager at the time that wanted to get those microphones into TV studios.

So we took the 545, made it a dark grey, and took off the switch. That became the SM57. SM actually stood for Studio Microphone. So the first big adopter of that was the White House communications agency, and then the SM58 came a year later. That’s when we put a wire grille on it.

It didn’t really take off for the radio and TV market. There actually was a meeting in 1970 that we were thinking about getting rid of it. The sales manager at the time said, “Well, before we do that, let me see if I can take them out to Las Vegas and see if they work good for live sound rather than pushing them to the radio TV thing.”

Of course, they were great for live sound. That’s really where it got started.

Justin: Yeah, that’s huge. Now, also in the live sound world, you guys have been doing wireless mics for a long time, and you’re a big purveyor of digital wireless systems now. When did Shure start getting involved in wireless?

Michael: 1933?

Justin: Wow! That’s about as early as you could possibly get involved in wireless.

Michael: Yeah, we made a product there called the Model 99, but not really what you would call a wireless microphone. Early radio frequency product, but not really a wireless mic. Our first wireless microphone was posited in 1947, where Ben Bauer, the same guy that developed the Unidyne said, “You know, I think we could put a transmitter into the base of a microphone stand, and get rid of the cable between the microphone and the audio system.”

Took us from ’47 to 1953 to actually bring out our first wireless system. So we sold that from ’53 to 1960, but because of the price, we actually got out of the wireless business in 1960, because Mister Shure was concerned about reliability, and allegedly, I wasn’t at the meeting, he basically said, “When we can make a wireless microphone that’s as reliable as the wired microphone, we can get back in that business.”

So we were out of that business from 1960 until 1990.

Justin: I think Shure has been getting more and more renowned lately for some of the newer, over ear headphone designs for studios, as well as the in-ear designs, both for stage and for consumers. How long have you been involved in the headphone market? That goes back to the beginning?

Michael: Headphones go back to World War II where we actually made headphones for military pilots. The in-ear phones was an interesting story. We brought out our own in-ear earphones in the late 90’s for use with our PSM systems. Our in-ear monitor systems for on-stage use for our musicians, and they did okay. But all of the sudden, we started to see our earphone sales were doing far more than our PSM sales.

Justin: So people were buying the earphones, but not the monitoring system?

Michael: Right. Couldn’t figure this out. So we started doing some market research, we came back, and said, “Wow, there’s this new thing called an iPod.” So we got into the earphone business — consumer earphone business through the professional side.

Justin: Well, it’s a really great, rich history that you guys have, but I know that you have not stopped innovating, have not stopped putting together new products. What are some of your favorite, most recent or upcoming designs?

Michael: There are some coming designs in digital wireless, which are just amazing. There are so many things you can do with digital that you can’t do with analog, and interference detection, where the actual wireless microphone says, “Hey, I hear interference coming,” and it tells the receiver, “I’m going to switch to this channel,” and it does it in split seconds. Things like that.

The ability to shove more and more microphones into a limited space. With digital, you can shove far more microphones into a single TV channel.

Justin: How about microphone design itself? There’s a couple fairly new ones out, right?

Michael: Yeah, we have a beam forming microphone, which basically can go into the ceiling. It goes into a two foot by two foot square, and you can literally know where people are talking in the room and then aim the beam at them. So there will be more things like that as well.

Justin: Great. Well, Michael, thanks so much for taking the time to talk, it was a really rich and interesting history, and I’m glad to have been able to visit and take a look at all of this.

Michael: Thanks for coming!

Justin: This has been Justin of Sonic Scoop, coming at you thanks to B&H. We’ve been here at Shure headquarters in Niles, Illinois. Whole bunch more videos coming with the guys from Shure. Thanks for hanging out with us. I’ll see you next time.

Justin Colletti

Justin Colletti

Justin Colletti has been obsessing about audio for more than 20 years, and working in the field for nearly 15 years. Learn more from Justin in Mixing Breakthroughs.
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